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Imagining the Obama-Bibi Gabfest

Three subjects—Iran, the Palestinians, and Syria—will surely be the subject of tonight’s dinner in Jerusalem

Lee Smith
March 20, 2013
(Israeli Embassy/YouTube)
(Israeli Embassy/YouTube)

After four years of bellyaching that President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to care much about them, Israelis now appear keen to prove that they don’t care much about Obama. Visiting Jerusalem last week, I heard motorists already complaining that security precautions taken in advance of Obama’s visit—closed-off streets and the subsequent traffic jams—were making life hell. And for what? There’s no peace process, there’s a civil war unfolding on the Syrian border, Egypt is melting down, and Iran is still marching toward the bomb. So, why is Obama showing up now, four years too late? Maybe it’s simply to prove that the United States hasn’t entirely disappeared from the Middle East.

Obama’s three-day trip, which begins today, is packed—there’s an inspection of an Iron Dome missile battery, a stop at Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum, a visit to the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, as well as a trip to see Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah, and a tour of Bethlehem. Given that tonight features a dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and five hours of talks with a man whose company Obama doesn’t much seem to relish, it’s no wonder the president might prefer, as he recently said, to “sit at a café and just hang out, wear a mustache, wander through Tel Aviv.”

Instead, he’ll be in Jerusalem talking about Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians—three issues all at serious impasses. The Iranian nuclear weapons program is clearly first in order of strategic significance. But to understand what that conversation will look like, it’s useful to first examine the other two.

Regarding the Palestinians, it seems clear that Obama will not present Netanyahu with a new peace plan at this time. This will give the Israeli leader good reason to sigh with relief—though it’s likely he will have to restrain himself from muttering, “I told you so.”

Obama came into office believing that the way to resolve the conflict was to apply more pressure on the Israelis and pass it off as “tough love,” but the limits of that tactic were sharply—and repeatedly—illustrated. Even after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly scolded Netanyahu in the wake of Vice President Joe Biden’s trip, Obama snubbed Bibi at the White House in May 2010, and the president won a 10-month settlement freeze, the White House still got nowhere on the peace process, since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to enter talks. Even though Obama has now dropped the peace process, the damage to his prestige has already been done. By ignoring allies in the region—Palestinians as well as Israelis—who were sounding the alarms about Iran, and fixating instead on solving the Israeli-Arab conflict, the president seemed to indicate to regional partners that he is easily distracted by small details at the expense of focusing on the bigger picture.

Obama’s Syria policy is evidence of the same narrow thinking. But here at least Obama and Netanyahu have something they clearly agree on: the danger of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Both have voiced serious concern that Assad may use his unconventional arsenal, or that he may transfer those and other strategic arms to Hezbollah, or that those weapons may fall into the hands of Islamist rebels who threaten to turn on Israel once they have dispatched with Assad.

As a number of Israeli officials explained to me last week at the Herzliya Conference, the Israeli government’s concern is mostly limited to those weapons. A thousand jihadists with steak knives is quite a different scenario than a thousand jihadists with Russian-made anti-aircraft artillery, as one senior Israeli policymaker told me. Therefore, Israel’s focus on the Syrian civil war is about tactics, not strategy.

Obama is sympathetic to Netanyahu’s worries over chemical weapons and other so-called game-changers in Syria’s arsenal. Indeed, from Netanyahu’s point of view, Obama may be too like-minded in this regard. The leader of the free world, unlike the prime minister of a small regional power, should be concerned primarily with strategy, not tactics. Israel has little ability to shape the political lives of its Arab neighbors, and it will have to defend its borders whether Assad holds on or if the rebels topple him. But the United States is more than capable of determining results in the Middle East, as the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein should remind us.

Netanyahu then may be tempted to ask Obama why, as the president has explained, only chemical weapons would make him “change his calculation” vis-a-vis Syria. Why doesn’t Obama see the fall of Assad in strategic terms—as a way to damage the Assad regime’s major ally, Iran? While many of Obama’s top advisers—including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey—have all argued for arming Assad’s enemies in order to bring down an Iranian ally, Obama has provided only nonlethal assistance to the Syrian rebels.

So, when it comes time to discuss Iran, Netanyahu will have had a lot of face-time with Obama, giving him an even clearer picture of how he interprets the region. OK, Bibi might think, Obama isn’t as gung-ho about the Palestinians as he was before, and he isn’t going to pressure Israel with a peace process, at least for the time being. But stepping back from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may also be indicative of a larger trend of extrication from the region. Withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and a hands-off approach to the situation in Syria—despite the American foreign-policy establishment’s consensus about toppling Assad—are all evidence that Washington is no longer playing its customary role of regional power.

As he has for the last four years, the American commander in chief will surely promise the Israeli prime minister that when it comes to Iran, “Trust me, I’ve got your back.” But everything Bibi has heard over the last five hours will likely tell him that, as time is running out to stop Iran, the United States is nowhere to be found, at least not in the Middle East.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.